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Slave descendants in Western Cape mission town battle for church-owned land

Elim is a village on the Agulhas Plain in the Western Cape. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Elim is a village on the Agulhas Plain in the Western Cape. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jan 17, 2020


Elim, South Africa - On

the plains of South Africa's Western Cape, a tiny town has

become an unlikely contender in South Africa's drive for more

equitable land rights.

Nearly 200 years ago, German missionaries set up a mission

station in what would later be named Elim to provide a home for

freed slaves and indigenous Khoi people who would become their

first converts.

Now, their descendants say the time has come for them to own

the land the Elimers have been living on for almost two

centuries, rather than the Moravian church that set up the

mission station.

In February Elimers will present a proposal to the Moravian

church council, with different land ownership possibilities,

such as buying or leasing the 7,500 hectares they call home from

the church.

"Not owning land feels like we have gone back to being

slaves," said Amanda Cloete, Elim's heritage officer.

"Our ancestors built this town. We want the land," the

58-year-old said inside the Elim heritage museum she founded in


Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Across South Africa, a quarter century after segregation and

white minority rule under apartheid was officially ended through

a negotiated settlement, land ownership remains a sensitive


President and African National Congress leader Cyril

Ramaphosa in 2018 launched a process to change the constitution

to make explicit provision for the redistribution of land

without pay to address high levels of inequality.

This national conversation has trickled into the town of

Elim known for thatched roofing, the occasional horse-drawn

cart, slave memorials and wild indigenous fynbos plants.

"People are land-hungry," Kenneth Cloete, 78, a retired Elim

school principal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation inside an

old church building now used for meetings.

"To have land, especially in South Africa, you feel like you

are somebody, you have a self-esteem, a sense of belonging," he


Yet Elimers are cautious about challenging the traditional

role the Moravian church, which originated in Bohemia and

Moravia in what is the present-day Czech Republic, has played in

the town.

Elim was established in 1824 by German missionaries as a Moravian mission station Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)


In the final year of school, Elimers undertake "citizenship

classes" set by the church.

They sign a pledge to follow rules such as only cohabiting

with a spouse, carrying a dog permit if a pet owner, respecting

the church's right to issue levies, obeying their duty to God

and more.

If land ownership changes hands, both the church and some

residents worry the Elim ethos and "living museum" feel, as

referred to by Cloete, will be lost.

"We fear shacks being built here, property values dropping

and the culture changing," Cloete said.

Carl Richter, 48, a small-scale farmer who owns Elim's only

restaurant with his wife Madelein, agrees with that sentiment.

"But if you own land, we can do something for ourselves, we

don't have to rely on others," he said in his restaurant where

an 'I love Elim' sign welcomes customers.

Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

The first pioneering missionary, Georg Schmidt, was sent by

the Moravian church to what was then the Cape Colony in 1737,

research has shown.

Elim was established 87 years later, becoming a safe haven

for freed and escaped slaves from Malaysia, Madagascar,

Mozambique and Indonesia, due to its proximity to the sea, said

Reverend Martinus October, Elim's former pastor.

"Today, many people are shouting for title deeds," said

October who has worked with the Moravian ministry for 40 years.

"They are saying the church owns the land, but anyone part

of the Moravian church owns the land as we are the custodians,

they are the shareholders," October, 73, said.

Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)


In a town where 60% of residents are pensioners and most

young people seek jobs in Cape Town, according to Reverend

October, new businesses are needed.

But one of the problems the landless Elimers face is that

they cannot get loans for starting a business, said Pierre

Apollis, the chairperson of the Overseers Council.

Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Paulson Engel, a member of the Elim Residential Association,

said business pitches involving tourism and exporting flowers

fell short after a communication breakdown with the church.

"Who is going to invest in a farm owned by the Moravian

church?" he asked.

Elim has its own school, clinic, police station, home for

children with learning disabilities, greenhouse and dairy,

funded by sources including the church, the Cape Agulhas

municipality and donations.

The church's Overseers Council acts as Elim's municipality,

collecting waste, supplying water and supporting the elderly,

while the Cape Agulhas municipality provides electricity and

partial funding for projects and infrastructure.

Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)


To become and remain an Elimer after the citizenship

classes, one must pay at least 60 rand ($4) per year, said

Elim's current pastor, Reverend Gert Temmers.

For municipal services an additional 350 rand per month is

paid to the Overseers Council, while starting a business and

farming require annual levies of 250 rand and 150 rand per

hectare respectively.

"The church is strangling small farmers and business

owners," said Richter. "It is no longer about winning souls for

them, it is about winning money."

Despite these levies, the church is short of funds to pay

tax to the municipality, repair broken buildings and keep social

enterprises - such as a former sewing factory and bakery - open

for business, said Apollis.

Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

The church said there is simply not enough to go around, as

money needs to be paid to the Moravian provincial board that

oversees the mission stations and the Cape Agulhas municipality

for electricity and other services.

The Overseers Council said these funds have been poorly

managed by the church.

"There has been maladministration (by the church)," said

October. "But not malice," he added.

Temmers said the church "is open to rethinking the

management structure" of Elim, including land ownership and the

role of the church in fulfilling municipal services.

Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

"The people must decide what they want," he said.

Inside the church's office, amid a few notices, posters and

inspirational quotes pinned on the wall, a small square of paper

reads 'Old ways don't open new doors'.

Pastor Temmers laughed when asked about the relevance.

"I disagree with this," he said. "Old ways can open new

doors. We can learn from history to understand the best ways to

move forward." 

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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